Far from an inexorable march of conquest, Western Europe’s early military forays around the world rode an ebb and flow tide of mercantilism.
During the period from 1500 to 1800, the nations of Western Europe burst onto the world stage with a vengeance, opening trade routes, establishing outposts, subjugating native peoples, and building foreign alliances. European countries developed a global reach increasingly motivated by a desire to profit from trade with new regions—a desire encouraged by Europe’s relatively limited economic opportunities.
The development of mercantilism in turn structured the nature of expansion. Securing commercial networks and relationships was more important than acquiring territory, either for its own sake or for national honor, although those motivations drove nineteenth-century imperialism. Sea power played the dominant role, with strong navies vital for protecting trade routes and safeguarding commercial bases such as the sugar islands of the West Indies or the coastal trading centers in Africa and Asia. Land forces were secondary in projecting Western power.
During this same period, Spain overthrew two great land empires in Central and South America, replacing the Aztecs and the Incas with a new imperium. Britain colonized much of the North American coast and then pushed its settlements inland. Both were aberrations.
The far more common experience was on the other side of the world. There, Britain struggled for mastery of the Indian subcontinent with France and with powerful local rulers. None of the decisive battles in India were fought anywhere near waterlines. Almost from the beginning of Europe’s commercial expansion, European countries engaged their military powers inland, beyond the coastal zones. The nature and the success of those engagements, however, were specific, reflecting local circumstances rather than general European superiority.
Before the sixteenth century, military encounters between “the West and the rest” had been episodic. A peninsula at the far end of the Eurasian landmass, Europe was difficult to reach, much less invade. Much of its internal geography was a tangle of mountains and hills, small rivers and thick forests—uncongenial to prospective conquerors used to the easy access of open spaces.
However, the geography that protected Europe also restricted it. No matter how warlike Europe’s inhabitants became—and their development in that respect is impressive—they were unable to project sustained power away from their “base area.” The Crusades are best understood as a series of surges to the eastern Mediterranean littoral, with the Crusaders never able to penetrate very far inland. The centuries-long land wars of Poland/Lithuania and Sweden with Orthodox Russia and the Balkan-based conflict of Western Christianity with Ottoman Islam illustrate mutual strategic overreach, regularly ending in limited tactical decisions and mutual military exhaustion.
The parameters of those conflicts changed significantly in the sixteenth century, however, as Europeans developed technology allowing sustainable maritime power projection. Efficient sailing ships mounting effective shipboard artillery, first operating individually but then in squadrons and fleets, enabled Europeans to prevail far beyond the Mediterranean. While broadside sailing ships were not always victorious against dhows and galleys, the Westerners could generally evade boarders by sailing out of their reach while crippling their ships with gunfire.
Sustaining the effectiveness of cannon-armed sailing ships required local bases. The qualities that enabled Western ships to make long voyages and defend themselves when they arrived were synergistic: Neither the ships nor the guns required large crews.
If harbors and bases could be secured by occupying unsettled land, as Portugal frequently did while establishing the East African link in its south Asian commercial network, so much the better. As the bases developed into trading stations as well, maintaining them required land power—but seldom more than token garrison forces. Expeditions into the interior, whether conducted independently or in the context of regional politics, seldom turned out well.
On the other side of Africa, the logistics and security requirements of the transatlantic trade in slaves and gold that was the key to the Euro-African connection required Europeans to maintain strongholds in West African territory. They did so, however, with the consent of local rulers, and at the cost of substantial ongoing rents and fees. European traders encouraged local and regional disputes by offering to purchase captives. European technology influenced local wars as muskets steadily replaced bows.
But European soldiers had little direct influence on either process. Except for the Portuguese in Angola, they made no conquests during the early modern period, nor sought to, nor were they encouraged to conquer—and Portugal’s control over Angola remained marginal into the twentieth century.
In northwest Asia as well, the extension of Europe’s influence remained essentially a maritime, commercial process. The Japanese made rapid and extensive use of European-style firearms after they learned of them from Portuguese castaways. Armies and tactics were eventually structured around firepower, to the extent that Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan’s first shogun, would declare that he desired guns and gunpowder more than gold.
The great battles for control of the empire, Nagashino (1575) and Sekigahara (1600), matched in operational sophistication and tactical virtuosity anything in the early modern Western experience. Only the greatest of contemporary European captains, with his full army at his back, would have had a chance of victory in either fight, and then only on a very good day. Japanese fortifications might not reflect the mathematical precision of contemporary Europe’s bastioned works, but were arguably even more proof against siege and bombardment, to the point where most fell only by negotiation—or treachery. Small wonder that Westerners trod softly in Japan, right down to the closing off of the island empire.
China, if it never adopted Western military technology with Japan’s initial enthusiasm, was also far too effective militarily to be challenged on its own ground. The empire was for much of this period in the process of changing rulers, as the Mandate of Heaven passed from Ming to Qing (Manchu). The transition involved sophisticated campaigns and battles encompassing tens and hundreds of thousands. In that context, the few hundred Western soldiers who might be brought to China would make the impact of a pebble on a flood.
European soldiers did establish an offshore presence in the Far East—but never a stable one during this period. The Dutch developed the island of Formosa into one of the most prosperous parts of their overseas empire during the first half of the seventeenth century. Only two small forts defended the island.
In 1660 the Chinese pirate king Coxinga led an invasion force that captured the larger fort after a nine-month siege involving Western cannons and European methods. Coxinga then sent envoys to the Spanish-occupied Philippines demanding tribute. With only about six hundred troops in the entire archipelago, the prospects for successful resistance were limited. Only Coxinga’s unexpected death in 1662 kept the Spanish flag flying over Manila.
The West’s problems projecting power during these centuries did not stop at coastlines. Europeans also found themselves consistently on the short end of brown-water operations in Africa and Southeast Asia. The big ships with heavy guns that brought the Europeans to those continents and kept them there were generally unsuitable for inshore fighting. They also lacked men experienced in littoral combat.
This was not a cultural phenomenon. Europeans had developed specialized amphibious craft and skills to a high degree by the time Europe burst on the world during the sixteenth century. Europe’s coastal geography and the water-related locations of its major cities had produced high levels of expertise in what today is called littoral warfare: operations on rivers, lakes, and estuaries. For example, the sixteenth-century Dutch-Spanish wars were characterized by web-footed fighting, and the final British conquest of Ireland, beginning in the sixteenth century, depended heavily on coastal and inland amphibious operations.
Neither the soldiers nor the methods developed in such operations were exported during the first age of mercantilism. It was not even considered; the expertise was too valuable closer to home. The costs of dispatching trained soldiers halfway around the world far exceeded any calculable profit, although their absence put Westerners at a significant disadvantage everywhere in the Southern Hemisphere. From the Cameroons of West Africa to Burma’s Arakan to the Indonesian archipelago, Europeans faced enemies with expertise in littoral operations they could not match, under conditions in which shipborne firepower and maritime skills were at a discount.
Wherever one looks in the Southern Hemisphere during the early modern period, the European soldier’s foot- print is limited, more often found in the sand and mud of a coastline than the terra firma farther inland. Well aware of Westerners’ limitations on land, local Asian rulers in particular negotiated treaties closely regulating their commercial activities. Once the powder smoke of initial contacts cleared, Europeans were usually willing to comply. They had come not to conquer but to trade.
The Dutch were arguably an exception, having been convinced by decades of experience dealing with Spain that trade could only prosper when defended. As a result, the Dutch East India Company put its major resources into ships and forts—and the latter reflected not strategy but the Indonesian archipelago’s geography. Small islands with fortified trading centers each needed a Dutch presence.
The long struggles between the Dutch and Portuguese for mastery of Indonesia in the seventeenth century and the Anglo-French duel for primacy in India were essentially projections of European political conflicts. Their connections to the paramount commercial interests that brought Europeans halfway around the world in the first place were correspondingly marginal.
Beginning in the 1740s, however, the French Compagnie de Indes, always limited by the number of European soldiers France was able to supply, began raising company-sized units of sepoys (from the Sanskrit sipahi, or soldier), Indians commanded primarily by Europeans and trained on European lines. The innovation was initially defensive: a response to the increasing scale and number of raids regional powers began launching in defiance of the declining Mughal empire. They sought not only political autonomy but also financial gain.
The continued fighting was often so bad for business that trading company executives in Europe periodically considered driving rivals entirely out of disputed regions. When the French used their new troops to capture British Madras, the British Honorable East India Company began recruiting counterparts, and the sepoy race was on.
In 1760 the East India Company’s directors allowed its authorities in Calcutta to enlist “blacks” at discretion. A well-developed triumphalist thread dates from the company’s decision. According to it, the British enlisted hundreds, then thousands of natives; uniformed, armed, and trained them in the European fashion; and then led them to victory after victory.
The myth of the sepoy asserts that European training and discipline provided cohesion and community to men who had previously fought as individuals, no matter how large the army to which they belonged. European tactics proved exponentially superior to the cavalry-and-elephant systems of the Mughal-style armies. “John Company” attracted good men by providing fair pay on time. The British officers leading the newly formed battalions set an example of courage in battle. Finally, the sepoy system made men of outcasts, showing them that by standing together and holding their ground, they could defeat the men on horseback who had been their masters for generations.
Like all myths, this one is not without some substance. Western military technology—the musket/bayonet combination and mobile field artillery in particular—repeatedly proved the master of south Asian battlefields, from Plassey to Assaye. Western drill enabled men to face superior numbers with calmness if not equanimity, and to endure in the face of danger. Regular pay and supplies helped create the sense of community vital to unit effectiveness in any army. Victory followed the East India Company’s banners, and victory’s rewards were generous.
A successful sepoy system also depended on incorporating regional traditions and mentalities. Indian cultures laid great value on personal and collective honor. The company respected a sepoy’s language, faith, customs, and personal dignity. Hindu and Muslim teachings alike attached great importance to birth and occupation and the duties accompanying them, and on loyalty to the provider of a livelihood. It was not particularly difficult for a man wearing the Kampani bahadur’s uniform to perceive himself as fulfilling his karma and his dharma in exemplary fashion.
The projection of Western military power in south Asia owed much as well to commerce—specifically credit. Indian rulers were well aware of the link between economic and military development. Mysore’s Tipu Sultan, for example, sought to improve agriculture by subsidizing the cultivation of new land and constructing irrigation systems. He established banking houses to facilitate making loans. Indian states widely adopted similar measures as the eighteenth century progressed.
But Britain was an economic superpower, able to use local and international capital resources to dominate a still-developing south Asian military economy—directly, by hiring away troops through better wages, and indirectly, by choking off funding sources to rivals and enemies. Western military systems could be replicated. Paying for them over sustained periods, without the equivalent of Western banking systems, was another matter.
For two centuries, the West’s position in the world would depend heavily on creating and sustaining local military forces loyal to the new order, effective both internally and outside their immediate homelands. The sepoy model proved by far the best means to that end. Contemporary events in Iraq suggest it may still have its uses.
By contrast, the most familiar, most spectacular Western military operation in the New World was also a comprehensive anomaly. The Spanish conquests in the Americas began as wildly successful filibustering expeditions. The conquistadors saw themselves not as soldiers (many had no military experience) but as crusaders and entrepreneurs. They went to the New World, as the genial hard case Bernal Diaz (in the force of Hernando Cortés) candidly put it, to honor God by increasing the number of his subjects, to serve the king by enlarging the size of his domains, and above all “to grow rich, as all men desire to do.”
Once in Mexico, the Spaniards found themselves involved in what amounted to a war of liberation, helping subject peoples rise up against the increasing demands of their Aztec overlords. Gunpowder technology, steel weapons, and armor made the Spaniards desirable allies. Indians viewed them in a military context: as shock troops, willing and able to break through Aztec lines in a way that was impossible using Mesoamerican technology, opening the way for local warriors to achieve victory in traditional fashion.
In Peru the conquistadors were able to take advantage of the factionalism never too far from the surface in a polity little over a century old. The Incas were seeking to govern dozens of formerly independent societies and their corresponding ethnic groups.
Destroying the central authority created a power vacuum in both Mexico and Peru. Mexico’s indigenous victors understood overthrowing the Aztecs as part of a continuum whose future involved redistributing power in a context of new alliances. Incan authority was shaky at best. Reorganizing along what in contemporary terms would be called federal lines was a distinct possibility even had Francisco Pizarro’s adventurers not intervened.
In each case, the Spaniards appeared to lack the resources to compete effectively for power in the long run. They were too few. Their internal relationships, so obviously influenced by friction and faction, also did not suggest long-term staying power.
Both sets of calculations were fundamentally and spectacularly mistaken. The Spanish promptly filled the vacuums by developing—or perhaps adapting from the Iberian Peninsula’s centuries-old legacy of “reconquest” against the Moors—what amounted to an imperialist ideology prefiguring twentieth-century models: subjugating entire populations, installing new rulers down to town levels, introducing a new religion, and diverting the wealth of the region to Spain’s benefit—and of course their own.
None of Europe’s conquerors, not Charlemagne and not the Crusaders, had approached this degree of control in aspiration, much less achievement. Western diseases, and by some accounts traumatic levels of cultural shock as well, helped keep Mesoamericans and Peruvians from effectively overthrowing the Spaniards.
This model of power projection nevertheless proved temporary. The subsequent place of soldiers in the New World’s southern hemisphere increasingly replicated the Afro-Asian experience. On land frontiers from southwestern North America to Chile and Argentina, the dominant military system was some variant of what Spain called the presidio.
Unlike the forts the U.S. Army would later establish on the Great Plains, presidios were usually actual fortresses, constructed somewhat along the lines of a late medieval castle and correspondingly almost impregnable to any siege or assault techniques available to the locals, despite their small garrisons (typically about fifty men). Replicating the fortified trading bases Europeans were establishing on the other side of the world, presidios were centers of small-scale commercial enterprise that acted as a secular arm in support of missionary activity and provided protection for local residents, Indians included.
The presidial system’s successes were consistently remarkable, particularly given its limited resources. Fire-eating governors or ambitious commandants periodically threatened to employ fire and sword, but these threats remained largely empty. Even the intra-European wars exported to these regions during the early modern period involved small numbers. Dispatching large forces safely to presidial frontiers, then supplying them systematically, were beyond the capacities of the powers involved.
As a result, it was nearly impossible for Westerners to swamp existing social and economic orders as the conquistadors had done. Instead, they became players in the systems they encountered, modifying rather than destroying them.
For example, presidio residents typically endured extreme hardship and fought small, deadly conflicts that tried garrisons to the limit. Service was a last option for the desperate: exiled convicts or criminals on the run. However, presidio garrisons might also include those seeking upward mobility. In Mexico mestizos, men of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage, found military service one of the few openings where they could advance despite the “stain” of their birth, through land grants and legally revised racial identities available on discharge.
The marginality of soldiers on Spanish America’s land frontiers was replicated in the Caribbean basin. There, sea power and fortresses providing European fleets with secure bases shaped military conflicts. The difficulties of repairing and replacing ships contributed to the generic indecisiveness of early modern naval battles in the Americas. That in turn enhanced the importance of the fortresses that protected the harbors.
The West Indies islands, with their small areas, broken terrain, and deadly climate, offered unpromising hinterlands for continental-style siege operations. Sieges in the early modern period were essentially amphibious operations: Ships delivered a ground force to their objective and then sustained the troops until the fortress capitulated or disease and privation wore down the attackers.
Consequently, states tended to allocate a high proportion of their Caribbean military spending to building fortifications able to independently withstand long sieges. Here Spain, in particular, excelled. Cartagena, for example, and above all Havana were strong fortresses. The British capture of Havana in 1762 was a triumph of determination and technique in the face of an oppressive climate, difficult terrain, and a stubborn defense.
That was where the soldiers came in: as garrisons on one hand, as mosquito fodder for landing operation sieges on the other, plus the kind of internal security work to be expected on islands whose populations consisted overwhelmingly of slaves, many of recent vintage. Mortality was so high that an assignment to the islands amounted to a death sentence in slow motion. The situation was exacerbated by a spectacularly unhealthy lifestyle built around the general belief that consuming liquor prevented someone from succumbing to a tropical disease.
Not until the wars of the French Revolution were large forces of European troops committed to the Caribbean on a regular basis— and even then their usual contribution was little more than to provide statistics on how long it took to die of what sickness. Britain, dominant in the region after the turn of the century, began replacing its European garrisons with black slaves, increasingly purchased directly from Africa and manumitted on discharge, organized sepoy-style into battalions with European leadership.
Events in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in British North America, created a second exception to the early modern model of limited projection of land power. Here immigrants were key. Settlers found themselves in a hostile environment, inhabited by a people whose everyday ways of living were alien and whose principles of making war seemed particularly barbaric.
The British had a model and a method for meeting the challenge. Their model was Ireland, another alien environment populated by an “unworthy” race. Their method had been unlimited war. This meant pitched battles when possible and “little war” when they were not. It meant making no significant distinctions between combatants and noncombatants. It meant using what contemporary theorists call “shock and awe” to permanently break not merely the capacity of warrior peoples to fight but also their will to fight.
At a time when Europe’s wars were becoming more focused, having less effect away from the battlefields themselves, warfare waged in the British colonies grew increasingly violent and all-encompassing. Combatants targeted agricultural resources and villages, casually accepting the deaths of children on the grounds that “nits make lice”—even employing germ warfare by introducing smallpox-infected blankets to Indian communities.
Indians were at least as likely to commit atrocities as Europeans. Increasingly, individual grievances motivated participants on both sides. Indian and European ideas of what to do with the same country were sufficiently incompatible to facilitate belief that one or the other needed to submit or vanish. In addition, a distinctively New World synergy of classical learning, religious identity, and culture shock provided ample—or at least sufficient—rationale for primal war against a uniquely and malevolently alien Other.
John Grenier describes this “First Way of War” as incorporating three elements. One was extirpation: a pattern of burning towns and killing noncombatants originally imported from the fringes of the Thirty Years’ War and Europe’s border wars with the Ottoman Empire, refined over decades in the New World because Indian culture offered no other worthwhile targets.
The second characteristic, bounty systems, also had European antecedents, a history of paying ransoms and rewards for captives. Under European conditions, live prisoners were valuable, even if only as potential recruits for one’s own armed forces. Corpses were worth nothing at all. In British North America, just the reverse was true. Prisoners had no value as objects of ransom, little for exchange purposes, and not much more when sold as slaves—especially in competition with the increasingly flourishing African trade. It was more convenient when governments offered money or goods for proof of death. Fingers, ears, and similar body parts were too easily misrepresented. A scalp was easy to preserve, carry, and prove as having come from a single individual.
Extirpation and bounty systems fostered Grenier’s third element: ranging war. Ranging war developed as Indian populations diminished and Indian peoples abandoned frontier zones for the ostensible security provided by distance. It was facilitated as well by the growing cultivation of the warrior aspects of Indian cultures, making the natives exponentially more formidable combatants.
Militias based on generic service gave way to specialized formations composed of—and led by—men who knew what they were doing in the complex conditions of frontier warfare, from New England’s forests to the swamps of Georgia and South Carolina. As colonial society stabilized, the farmer, the blacksmith, the shopkeeper was well content to abide at home and compensate for his lack of service with money. Cash in hand on enlistment and promises of land on discharge were an appealing combination to the ambitious and the adventurous. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” was the mantra of many a recruit to the Indian wars from a developing entrepreneurial society.
Colonial rangers were formidably effective—within limits. Particularly on the Appalachian frontier, their discipline was ragged to the point of nonexistence. Repeatedly, an exchange of insults and challenges took Europeans headlong into ambushes prepared by Indians who emerge as the rational actors in the scenario.
A second problem was operational. Ranger companies could wage war but could not decide it, even before the French began furnishing their opponents with arms, ammunition, and safe havens. Ranging tactics arguably exacerbated the problem by forcing more and more Indians to seek French protection as the lesser evil, as well as the better commercial prospect. Finally, rangers were too far outside the mainstream of developing colonial societies to make them dependable defenders and protectors. That issue furnishes subtext to, for example, such near-contemporary fictional works as The Last of the Mohicans, in which Hawkeye repeatedly proclaims himself “a man without a cross”— that is, of unmixed blood and therefore unchallengeable loyalty.
Increasingly, then, British colonists in North America demanded the presence of regular troops as an alternative to the local, indigenous force. That preference remained unaltered by such catastrophes as the near-annihilation of General Edward Braddock’s column at the Monongahela in 1755, or the costly failure to storm Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. The colonies were quite content to have their own “provincial” regiments relegated to second-line and labor missions. That acquiescence was facilitated as the British professionals rapidly adapted to New World conditions.
Irregular war, petite guerre as it was called, had long been familiar in Western Europe. In Ireland and Scotland, British regiments had faced something even closer to partisan war as understood in North America: enemies perceived as bound by none of the restraints developing in warfare among states. The military response involved campaigns of suppression so brutal that the nine of diamonds still carries the nickname “curse of Scotland” on the (mythic) grounds that the Duke of Cumberland wrote on that playing card his order for no quarter at the Battle of Culloden in 1745.
The British army thus had something of a playbook when it deployed in force to North America during the French and Indian War. Regular officers made increasing use of rangers for raiding and screening. The British organized a specialized light battalion, the 80th Foot, and raised the four-battalion Royal Americans primarily from German and Swiss settlers in western Pennsylvania. Regular regiments formed light companies, specially trained in skirmishing and given modified uniforms better adapted to rough country than the traditional long-skirted scarlet coats. The counterparts of today’s grunts also found themselves fighting in fewer ranks and looser formations than prescribed by drill books designed with Europe in mind.
French Canada also regularized its military system. For a variety of reasons—not least the relatively small size of its population vis- à-vis the First Canadians—Canada had never fought indigenous people on the scale or with the enthusiasm of its southern neighbors. The locally recruited militia, the woods-runners or coureurs de bois, and the colonial service companies raised by the naval ministry were sufficiently acculturated to be formidable bush fighters.
The near-token regular regiments, white coats and all, that the home government managed to send only at too-long intervals nevertheless became the backbone of Canada’s long rear-guard struggle. This in good part reflected their status as the only troops in Canada who could stand against the reconfigured British regulars with fair prospects of success in anything like a stand-up fight.
The American preference for placing regular soldiers at the sharp end of war persisted through the War of Independence. The Continental Army was largely recruited from the marginalized, the disadvantaged, and the ambitious. Patriotism was certainly a motive for enlisting, but the increasingly generous bonuses in cash, land, and goods appealed to self-interest in a uniquely American synergy—remaining central, indeed, to the character of the contemporary U.S. professional armed forces.
The Continental Army developed to a point where its better units proved consistently a match for the best British and German troops they faced. That effectiveness more or less directly reflected acculturation to the professional methods developed in Europe. The same point can be made for the rebels’ second line, the state militias. The Continentals depended heavily on the temporary services of patriots with property. They proved most effective at organizing men and supplies and when employed locally.
Individuals, however, shifted freely between militia and Continental service. Militiamen often saw a good deal of combat as the war progressed. By the end of the war, particularly in the South, militia regiments gave good accounts of themselves in regular and quasi-regular roles.
It is one of the ironies of American history that this initial legacy of military professionalization on the European model was overshadowed, in just about the only non-European region where it developed, by a myth. That myth of the improvised soldier, confirmed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, remains, sustained by blogs, bumper stickers, and talk shows that celebrate the martial virtues of an armed public.
In this period of European expansion, there was nothing particularly arcane or unique about Western methods. Asian military cultures in particular were accustomed to using massed firepower. Firing arrows on a signal is not essentially different from firing muskets. China’s Han Dynasty fielded bodies of disciplined crossbowmen in the first century. The African slave trade provided ample money for rulers to purchase effective firearms, and African armies had significant independent traditions of disciplined, coordinated infantry actions. Moreover, native rulers would have found many Europeans who had served in their own armies or the forces of trading companies readily available for hire. Many mercenaries did serve the states of India.
Nor were non-Western military cultures particularly inward-looking and stagnant. War on all scales was a constant on the African coasts, in south Asia, Japan, and even China. Generals everywhere regularly borrowed ideas, techniques, and weapons. Successive sultans of Mysore, the south Indian state that mounted the most effective challenge to British power, organized infantry on Western lines, and developed indigenous armaments industries, engaging skilled craftsmen directly from France.
What could not be imported or imitated was intention. Non-Western combatants fought to win, but as a rule their definition of victory differed significantly from that of Western military cultures. Strategies and tactics tended to emphasize cost effectiveness: care in expending resources, whether human, material, or political.
Opportunity and survival were key words throughout south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. War provided a business opportunity. Merchants with goods to sell—cloth, grain, or luxury items—could find open, flexible markets; so could bankers and moneylenders, as well as soldiers and would-be soldiers. Social opportunities existed as well. An Indian peasant with only a personal weapon could pass for a warrior; a man with a horse was even more employable in raiding cultures like the Maratha. In Japan, generally regarded as a highly stratified culture, many a samurai began, as the saying had it, “with paddy mud between his toes.”
Participation in war represented a chance for social and material advancement. The risks involved were widely considered acceptable. One of the reasons why Japan’s seventeenth-century shogunate shut down the use and importation of gunpowder weapons involved the blossoming social pretensions of the growing contingents of arquebusiers. They had been seen as changing the nature of war—culturally as well as operationally—during the earlier warring states period. The Japanese found it unsettling that an anonymously fired bullet could bring down the mightiest feudal lord or the boldest trained warrior.
Death in battle nevertheless was honorable, even in China, where the familiar proverb that one does not use good iron to make nails nor good men to make soldiers owed as much to Manchu conquerors as to Confucian philosophy—each had a vital interest in keeping the population docile. What counted was maintaining the system. Victory did not mean annihilating an enemy people or destroying their social order; it involved gaining a place in the structure, dominating it through force of arms, and then negotiating compromises with the other players.
When Europeans appeared, newcomers to the game, they were willing to participate on existing terms. At most times in most places, that assumption held. The pattern of limited Western projection of military power in the early modern period had, however, three significant exceptions. Each was specific; each was suggestive.
India’s military culture facilitated Western development of local resources structured on Western models. The collapse of authority in Mexico and Peru was so complete that the Spanish were able to take over with limited resources. British North America developed as a community of settlers that eventually demanded a Western-style military system as a security blanket.
At the same time, wherever they went in the world, Europeans also acquired a common reputation—for unique ferocity. Not that African and Asian societies were strangers to large-scale killing. Nor did they lack cultural insight into battle madness: the “heroic rage” that could motivate individuals and groups to extraordinary heights of courage and corresponding depths of brutality.
Europeans nevertheless seemed different. Victor Davis Hanson ascribes this to a unique “Western way of war” dating back to ancient Greece, combining self-critical rationalism, technological proficiency, and commitment to decision. Scholars of the Iberian expansion focus on the hardihood and ferocity, fueled by religious enthusiasm, acquired in centuries of war with the Muslims. As an extension to these ideas, the European soldiers who set the tone for locally raised imperialist armies could be seen as part of a professional military subculture with an unreflective and enduring commitment to violence unmatchable by less-militarized peoples.
A rational-actor variant on this cultural approach suggests that Westerners who found themselves hopelessly out- numbered consciously employed ferocity as a force multiplier and a deterrent, particularly in the initial stages of penetration. On his first voyage to Asia in 1498, for example, Vasco da Gama burned Arab captives alive and sent their ears and noses ashore with the tide.
The counterargument, that Europeans had nothing to teach the Aztecs with their large-scale practice of human sacrifice, or south Asian cultures in which individual torture was an art form and mass atrocities were commonplace, has general merit. Da Gama’s behavior was at least matched in 1571 when Ottomans captured the Venetian governor of Famagusta in Cyprus. To retaliate for his stubborn defense and as a warning to others, they flayed him alive, then displayed his stuffed skin as a trophy.
One argument is that European violence differed less from its counterparts in degree or imagination than in context. A major Aztec war aim, for example, was taking prisoners for sacrifice. The Spaniards preferred to slay potential captives, since they could neither be ransomed nor safely guarded, and since their promises not to escape were meaningless.
Similarly, most African and some Asian cultures sought captives as slaves, or for labor. In societies far less mechanized than even preindustrial Europe, muscle power was too valuable to waste indiscriminately. Westerners with no domestic traditions of transferable servile labor (serfs were tied to the soil they cultivated, by law and custom) and to whom all indigenous peoples seemed more alike than different had fewer compunctions about large-scale, systematic killing.
By the end of the eighteenth century, Europeans more or less controlled a third of the world’s surface. By 1914 they ruled 85 percent—and their control was far more direct and comprehensive. A fundamental reason for that change was the West’s increasing ability to project and sustain power on land. A spectrum of technological and scientific innovations ranging from steamboats to tropical medicine and magazine rifles enabled Western soldiers to make their mark almost anywhere they went. Efficient bureaucratic administration allowed those soldiers to stay almost anywhere they went. Moreover, as land power became a global trump card, it encouraged a will to conquer challenging the will to trade that originally defined European expansion.
Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.